From: Hannah Pell

RR Auction, an auction house based near Boston, Massachusetts, recently sold one of Albert Einstein’s handwritten letters for $ 1.2 million. The letter is addressed to the Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein, a well-known challenger to Einstein’s theory of relativity, who even published an article in the Toronto Evening Telegram in 1936 entitled “Fatal Blow to Relativity Issued Here”.

Aside from public presentations of the academic debate, what else about the letter made it cost almost three times what it was predicted? It contained the only handwritten example of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equations – E = mc ^ 2 – from a private collection. Archivists from the Einstein Papers Project have said there are only three other known examples. Arguably one of the most famous physical equations of all time, well, you can easily imagine why someone simply has to have them.

That multi-million dollar document made me wonder: What other notable pieces of physics history were auctioned off for a pretty penny?

Photo credit: The Einstein archive from Ludwik Silberstein / RR auction.

First edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton outlined his three physical laws in his seminal Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Principia”). The Principia, published in 1687, is still considered to be one of the most influential books in the history of physics. In 2016, a first edition of Newton’s Principia sold to an anonymous buyer for $ 3.7 million; The buyer had paid three times the estimated value and secured the place of the Principia as one of the most expensive printed science books ever sold.

Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize

Richard Feynman – best known for his method of illustrating particle interactions as a symbol for their calculations – shared the Nobel Prize in 1965 with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger for their joint basic work on quantum electrodynamics. Among a collection of his papers, Feynman’s Nobel Prize was auctioned off during an auction of the history of science and technology at New York auction house Sotheby’s in 2018; the Nobel itself brought in $ 975,000, the total collection was over $ 4.9 million. The collection also contained Feynman’s copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics with handwritten notes in the margin (it sold for $ 87,500).

“At auction, we sell the history of the item,” said Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s vice president of books and manuscripts in 2019.

Nuclear for sale

An original viewing window from the plutonium manufacturing facility of the Manhattan Project in Hanford, Washington, sold for between $ 150,000 and $ 250,000 in 2014. The window is made of heavy lead glass designed to protect the project scientists from radiation exposure (the auction house noted that the window itself is in fact non-radioactive).

Credit: Bonhams New York.

Newer nuclear history materials were also auctioned, including a “fire sale” of parts from an abandoned federal plutonium project and a liquidation sale of Vermont nuclear power plant assets (valves, motors, and other parts).

The astounding prices at which these pieces of physics history were sold raise questions of value. A dated document or object may not have much intrinsic value – for example, some old laboratory equipment may no longer have any practical use today – but we still cherish these objects for their stories and keep these materials to inform and shape our understanding the past of physics.

It is certainly a priceless thing.


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